Rudeness and the Bottom Line

We seem to becoming less polite to each other at work. Over 10 years ago 1 in 4 employees said they were treated rudely at least once a week.

Five years ago that number had doubled. Last year 1 in 4 employees reported seeing workplace rudeness on a daily basis.

And it isn’t just rudeness between co-workers. 25% of customers reported rude behaviour from service providers. Half said they saw colleagues being rude to each other, half said  they saw customers being treated rudely, and 40% said they experienced rudeness on a monthly basis.

Of course it goes both ways and customers and the public can be just as rude to service providers’ front-line staff.

Research shows that rudeness has detrimental effects on a business. People on the receiving end report losing focus and even having time off or thinking of leaving. They also begin to avoid the perpetrators.

Rather than rely on subjective self-reports (after all one person’s rudeness is another person’s bluntness) researchers Christine Porath and Amir Erez designed a series of experiments to study the effect of rudeness – both indirect viz being rude about the participants’ reference group, and direct by being rude to participants personally.

They found that people treated rudely only once, and in an indirect and impersonal manner, were less able to perform simple cognitive tasks. And the same applied to those who were only asked to visualise such a situation. Both groups lost focus and their task performance worsened.

For those subject to direct personal rudeness the effects were much worse. They were less creative on a “uses for a brick” test and their ideas were less diverse and more routine eg build a house.

Creativity, which requires the juggling of ideas old and new and the integration of possibilities, was impaired and so was helpfulness.

People treated uncivilly are less inclined to help others. In one experiment helpful behaviour occurred between 75% and 90% of the time  but when the experimenter was rude about the group as a whole helpful assistance dropped to 35% and when insulted personally by a stranger it dropped to 24%.

Overall they found that even mild forms of rudeness, whether delivered by an authority figure or a stranger, whether direct or indirect or just imagined, had an impact on performance, creativity and helpfulness.

The researchers don’t think this effect was because of the desire to retaliate or strike back but perhaps because the targets of rude behaviour either shut down or use their cognitive assets to make sense of the behaviour rather than using them to learn and complete the tasks.

They also found that just witnessing rude behaviour was enough to make people perform tasks less effectively and less creatively as well as making them less likely to be helpful. It could also provoke them into acting more aggressively.

And rudeness in organisations can mean a range of behaviours from taking credit for others’ work, ignoring messages, not asking politely or saying “thank you”, to having temper tantrums.

Unfortunately in organisations it’s been found that rude, arrogant, managers are often perceived as powerful and effective decision-makers. However the truth is that rudeness not only impacts on employee engagement but on the bottom line.

Porath and her colleagues estimated it cost the US economy $300 billion in lost productivity when they were researching their book “The Cost of Bad Behaviour: How Incivility is Damaging Your Business and What to Do About It”.

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